How Long is too Long?

What is a reasonable length of time to leave a dog alone and are you in breach of the Animal Welfare Act of 2006

Dogs, more than any other type of pet, are social animals. They crave human company and interaction; after all, they have been our companions for at least 15,000 years. Do we, as dog owners, give our pets the companionship they need?

Animal welfare needs
A recent survey of the state of our nation’s pets by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) culminated in a document called the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2011. This inaugural survey looked at the five animal welfare needs which are similar to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Five Freedoms. Interestingly the Five Freedoms were the brain child of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) which was established by the Government in 1979.

The five welfare needs of companion animals are detailed in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 for England and Wales. The Five Freedoms were constructed with farm animals in mind and the Five Needs were constructed with pets in mind. Four of the Freedoms and Needs are similar but the one is different for each.

RSPCA / FAQC
Five Freedoms
PDSA
Five Welfare Needs
Freedom from hunger and thirst Diet – Need for a suitable diet
Freedom from discomfort Environment – Need for a place to live
Freedom from pain, injury, and disease Health – Need for protection from pain, suffering, injury, and disease
Freedom to express normal behaviour Behaviour – Need to express normal behaviour
Freedom from fear and distress Companionship – Need to live with or apart from other animals


Freedom and Companionship

One of the Freedoms describes the requirement for freedom from fear and distress, which is the avoidance of mental stress as a result of poor handling or a poor environment.

One of the Needs describes the requirement for companionship, and it is interesting to note that it describes the need for living with orapart from other animals. Golden Hamsters are generally solitary animals and may fight to the death if they are put together!

A sixth welfare need
There is little doubt that most farm animals, particularly flocking and herding species, benefit from companionship. Perhaps this is covered in the Freedom to express normal behaviour. There is little doubt that pets should not be the subjects of fear or distress. Is this covered if the other five needs are catered for?  Perhaps there should be six Freedoms and Needs with the addition of companionship to the Freedoms and the addition of avoidance of fear and distress to the Needs.

The PAW Report suggests an ideal scenario for each of the welfare needs for each pet species. With regard to companionship, it suggests that dogs should not be left alone for more than four hours a day depending on their age. However the survey revealed that 23% of respondents left their dog alone for more than five hours a day on a typical weekday.

Most dogs sleep in their own beds at night and so are probably left alone for 8 hours a night. However 17% of owners allow their dogs to sleep in family beds. So we know that dogs can be left 8 hours at night but the PDSA are saying that if you leave them for more than four hours during the day, you are compromising their welfare. Remember, owners now have obligations to provide for their pets’ welfare under the Animal Welfare Act. Failure to do so places the owners in danger of prosecution.

A dog’s need for companionship
As we have already seen, the RSPCA’s five freedoms do not specifically highlight the need for companionship and they do not identify a maximum period that a dog should be left alone. Instead their website states, “The amount of time it is suitable to leave a dog alone will depend on the individual dog”.  They also give advice on separation related behaviour in dogs, claiming that 13% of dogs in the UK display such problems.

The Dogs Trust, like the PDSA, recommends in their ‘Beating Boredom’ factsheet that a dog is not left for more than 4 hours a day. The Battersea Dogs & Cats Home state in their FAQ’s under “Can I rehome a dog if I have a full time job?” that dogs over 5 years of age should not be left for more than four to six hours on a regular basis. They go on to state that younger dogs can generally be left alone a couple of hours but puppies shouldn’t really be left at all when they are very young and the time they spend alone should be very gradually built up.

How long should dogs be left alone?
So how long is too long? I tend to be quite black and white and I like simple answers that owners can understand. I hate answers which start with, “It depends . . .” but in this case it probably does. Having searched the literature, my best answer is expressed in the table below.

Age of Dog
(speed of maturity varies between small, medium, large, and giant breeds)
Maximum period that a dog should be left for during the day
(ideal scenario)
Mature dogs over 18 months of age Up to 4 hours at a time during the day
Adolescent dogs 5 – 18 months Gradually build up to 4 hours at a time during the day
Young puppies up to 5 months of age Should not be left alone for long periods during the day

Realistically this means, in an ideal scenario, that owners of puppies and adolescent dogs cannot leave their dogs or have to make arrangements for their dogs’ care during the day. Owners of mature dogs need to return to them at lunch time, at the very least for half an hour. Without the support of family, friends, or professional dog walkers most people who work full time will find this very difficult to achieve.

Getting a dog another animal companion, usually another dog, is not an alternative to human companionship. Often, this results in two bored dogs rather than one!

It is important that potential dog owners ask two questions of themselves before they take on the responsibility of ownership;

  1. Have I got the time and;
  2. Can I afford it?

If you cannot provide companionship yourself, or make provision for someone else to, then you will not be meeting that dog’s welfare needs. This could put you in danger of breaching the Animal Welfare Act and you could be depriving the dog of a home that can provide companionship.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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